There is a trend at the moment with book series’ that are turned into films, for the last book to be split in two. It started with Harry Potter, continued with Twilight, and seems to have stalled somewhat for Divergent.
What hasn’t happened yet is other books in a series being afforded the same treatment – that honour is reserved for the last book only.
But if you have a series that packs as much character development and action into its second instalment as it does its last, should studios consider drawing things out even more? Could we have been reasonably expected Catching Fire Part 1 and 2 at the box office?
When you think about what was cut from Catching Fire, you could argue that there was another film’s worth of material that could have been explored.
Catching Fire picks up six months after the end of The Hunger Games. Katniss is adjusting to life back in District 12 as a Victor, with the Capitol paying for a more than comfortable lifestyle for her and her family. She is also dealing with the psychological fallout from the Games (the film shows this in a flashback she has of killing Marvel, the boy from District 1, while she is hunting with Gale). We soon learn that she and Peeta are due to leave on the Victory Tour, in which they will visit each of the districts, paying homage to the fallen tributes while towing the Capitol’s Party line that this is all done for the benefit of Panem.
Before they leave, Katniss is paid a visit from President Snow who was utterly unconvinced by her ‘performance’ in the Games regarding her blossoming romance with Peeta. Snow wasn’t convinced that her act of defiance at the end of the Games was motivated by love and he warns her that the districts aren’t convinced either. In fact, her actions are causing people to stir and talk of outright rebellion against the Capitol.
He issues and ultimatum for her: convince everyone that she is in love with Peeta (“Madly, willing to end it all, in love”) or she and her entire family, and Peeta, will be made an example of.
This colours the entire tour to the point at which Katniss and Peeta are forced to announce their engagement by the time they reach the Capitol. Even so, Snow is not won over.
Back in District 12, the Capitol begins to tighten its grip, becoming more and more oppressive with each passing day.
And this is all before we even get a sniff of the Games coming around again!
By the time the lead up to the Games comes in, you are already so fearful for the safety of Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Prim, Haymitch and everyone else in District 12, that it feels as if nothing can make things worse…
Then the Quarter Quell is announced.
A Quarter Quell, we are told, is a special commemorative version of the Games that occurs every 25 years and promises a greater ‘spectacle’ than the usual 24 teenagers battling to the death.
This year, on the 75th anniversary of the Games, the Capitol announces that the Tributes are to be reaped from the existing pool of Victors, thus reminding the districts that no-one is beyond the discipline of the Capitol.
For District 12, the pool of Victors is somewhat limited, consisting only of Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch. One way or another, they are going back into the Games.
All of this is condensed, squeezed and shoe-horned into the first 30-45 minutes of the film. Like I say, I wouldn’t have begrudged the studio from producing Catching Fire as two films.
As it is, there is A LOT that gets cut out, or at the very least, cut down in the opening third of the film. As with the first film, the use of multiple perspectives and visual cues helps to convey a lot of information in a very short space of time. Notably, in the book, Katniss (together with her friend Madge who is absent from the films) learns first-hand about the riots in District 8. She sees a news feed of what is happening and talks openly with Madge about the implications.
In the film, the riots are covered in about 5 seconds while Katniss is on the train during the tour. She is walking past a security room on the train and happens to see footage of District 8 as a group of Peacekeepers are watching. As soon as they realised Katniss is looking in, they slam the door shut and nothing more is said on the matter.
The Victory Tour itself takes place over the course of a montage sequence and only lingers long enough in each district to get a sense of the mounting tension across Panem.
I could give several other examples of material being shorted just in the first part of the film, but suffice it to say, there is a lot to get through and not a lot of time to do it. I am sure the film could easily have run to at least 4 hours in length, if everything had been kept in.
The material that does make it to the screen, though, is faithful to the feel and arc of the book; and, as was the case with the first film, there is enough going on that is true to the original story that you don’t feel like you have completely departed from the book altogether.
Having said that, there is one massive chunk of story that is missed from the film that I was very disappointed had to be cut. The Second Quarter Quell – the Games that Haymitch himself won 25 years ago.
The story of his Games adds so much to Haymitch’s character. They also add to the backstory of Katniss’ Mockingjay pin. As I mentioned in my previous post, in the books Katniss receives the pin from Madge. In Catching Fire, we learn that the pin had originally belonged to Madge’s Aunt, Maysilee, who was a tribute in the Second Quarter Quell. She and Haymitch had been allies for a while before parting ways prior to Maysilee’s death. The implication in the book is that, in different circumstances, Haymitch and Maysilee could have had a similar relationship to Katniss and Peeta.
However you interpret the events of Haymitch’s Games, the sequence in the book serves to draw parallels between Haymitch and Katniss, and highlights that given enough time, Katniss could easily spiral into a similar state of depression as Haymitch finds himself in. Of course, Katniss has Peeta and Prim to help keep her grounded. This contrast of Haymitch’s complete isolation from the rest of District 12 and the support Katniss draws from those around her re-enforces just how important people like Peeta and Prim are in her life.
Anyway, back to the story at hand. The Third Quarter Quell is announced and the Tributes are reaped with Effie’s usual shrill tones, but with less of her usual flair. Even she has been shaken by the Capitol’s choice for these Games. She comments, “You deserved so much more than this,” which is the first time her humanity starts to show through her glossy, Capitol-ised exterior.
Katniss is chosen as the female tribute for District 12 (hers was of course the only name to choose from) and Haymitch’s name is drawn for the male tribute. But, in a moment that mirrors the first book, Peeta volunteers as Tribute, ready to follow Katniss back into the Games.
What follows is remarkably faithful to the book. From the train journey back to the Capitol, the Tributes’ Parade, the training, the interviews, right up to Cinna being dragged away by the Peacekeepers (I’m still not over that), the screenwriters were able to follow the line of the book very well. As such, there is not a lot for me to comment on in this particular section.
Which brings us to the Games themselves. As with the District 12 section of the film, there are certain aspects of the Games that are condensed purely for the sake of saving screen time. For example, when Katniss and her allies receive the spile for drawing fresh water from the trees, in the book the group ponders over it for quite a while before Katniss has her “Eureka!” moment of realising what it is and what it’s for.
In the film, however, she takes it out of the mini-parachute it has arrived in, read’s Haymitch’s clue (“Drink up,”) and instantly knows what to do with it. Now, I know that films need to be conscious of their run time, but even a few more seconds of head scratching would have been appreciated at this point.
Another aspect of the arena that was dropped was the fact that each segment of the ‘clock’ was identical, even down to there being a replica of the Lightning Tree on the perimeter in each section, meaning that when the centre part spins, it is all the more difficult for them to orient themselves for where the lightning will strike at midnight.
The film also misses out the parcels of bread that are sent to them at various stages, that are later explained as being hidden messages to Finnick, Johanna and Beetee for when the rescue plan was to commence.
One thing I was grateful for, and again this goes back to the freedom the film has in using multiple perspectives, is towards the end when Johanna knocks Katniss down to remove the tracker from her arm, it is a little easier to determine what is going on. In the book, Suzanne Collins writes Katniss’ disorientation very well – maybe a little too well as at the point at which Katniss doesn’t know what is happening to her or around her, the reader also has very few clues to help figure it out as well. This may have been deliberate, but when there is so much going on at once that the narrative character is unaware of, it does take a little longer than usual to find a foothold in the action again.
And let’s be honest, as good a narrator as she is, Katniss has a tendency to be fairly oblivious at the best of times!
As the camera is able to show several things outside of Katniss’ perception, it is easier to follow the action as plot twist follows plot twist and characters’ motives are called into question within seconds of each other.
Fortunately (and this goes for the book as well), the rapid fire of the last few minutes in the arena is balanced by the well-deserved explanation that follows. This is what we are left with at the end of the film:
- A number of the Victors have been working towards rebellion for years.
- Haymitch worked with Finnick and Plutarch (the new Head Game Maker) to get Katniss and the others out of the arena as best they could.
- As a result of this, District 12 has been levelled!
- Gale (thank goodness for Gale!) was able to get Katniss’ family and a few hundred others out of District 12 before the bombs started falling.
- District 13 (which is referenced very briefly in passing in the first two books/films), it turns out, was not destroyed by the Capitol several years ago and is now their base of operation.
- Oh yeah! And the Capitol is holding Peeta and some of the other Victors captive. He is more than likely being tortured as they speak.
DO YOU SEE HOW THIS COULD HAVE BEEN TWO FILMS IN ITS OWN RIGHT??!!
As Katniss processes all of the above, her face changes from utter confusion, to despair, to anger and finally settles on defiant determination as the screen snaps to black and the Mockingjay flames into view. It starts off in the pose we know from the Pin – wings arched back and an arrow in its beak. Then it curls to become the bird trapped in a cage, resembling the clock-arena (as seen on the cover to Catching Fire). Finally, it spreads its wings to take flight as it does on the Mockingjay cover.
If that isn’t enough to set you up for Part 1 of the finale, I don’t know what is!
In all honesty, Catching Fire is quite an achievement story-wise, both on screen and on the page. The characters that are brought in here and the groundwork that is laid for the final instalment is phenomenal and once again leaves a great sense of anticipation for what is to come. And it does all of this without feeling like a typical second-book-stepping-stone that is only there to move the characters into position for the final showdown.
If Suzanne Collins could please give a Masterclass on how she achieved this, I would be first in line for that!
For those of you who are as disappointed as me not to have had the Second Quarter Quell featured in the film, this video link is a fan-made film of the Second Quarter Quell itself. It is expertly put together by Mainstay Productions. More of their work can be found on YouTube, Facebook, and on their website.